Mother Knows Best

Baby Lucy Cook came into the world 16 weeks early, weighing less than 2 pounds and in need of a lot of help.

Like many premature babies across the country, she is cared for in a cutting-edge but crowded neonatal intensive care unit packed with nurses, equipment and lots of noise that could affect her stress level.

"When there is a lot of sound going on, you can really see it on her monitor. You can see that her heart is affected," baby Lucy's mother, Stephanie Cook, told ABC News. "There is just too much going on, so we have to get her back in bed where we can control the environment."

At Phoenix Children's Hospital, doctors said the distractions have a real impact, and the hospital is developing rooms that more closely mimic the experience of how babies live in the womb as these babies receive medical care and grow after their early birth.

"Certainly one of the things we have learned over time is really the importance of being able to create an individualized environment for each baby," said Lori Vasquez at Phoenix Children's Hospital.

Until now, they've improvised, so some new mothers placed blankets over incubators to try to reclaim some closeness. But it's a poor substitute for the womb, where a mother's heartbeat and voice are the most prominent stimulants, and harsh light and sound are muffled.

"We're talking about learning how to give back to the child what they're expecting in the intrauterine environment," said neonatalogist Dr. Keith Meredith. "We'll never be as good at it as nature, because that's just the way that is, but we can get closer than we do today."

Peaceful, Private Rooms

Phoenix Children's Hospital is part of a new neonatal care movement to provide quiet, fully equipped private rooms for premature babies instead of one large room full of incubators.

Instead, it devotes an entire wing of individual rooms where babies are surrounded by no one but their mothers.

These "womb rooms" are designed to be private and peaceful. Everything from the floors to the ceiling tile is made of sound absorbent material to provide a closer mother-child experience.

Meredith said that while doctors tend to focus on the medicine and technology used to help sick babies, they sometimes forget that the babies are also in need of a warm, nurturing womb.

"What they hear, most of the time, is mom's heart rate, and mom's voice and the muffled sounds of the other people in their family who care for them," he explained. "There's a tenor to those sounds. There's a timber to the heart rate. Those things are likely to be soothing. … I think babies are designed to feel nurtured. We just need to understand how to nurture them while we take care of their trouble."

"It helps a lot with the bonding with the baby," said Gloria Perez, whose daughter is being cared for in one of these rooms. "It's more like a natural environment for her. As opposed to … hearing all the beeps everywhere and the babies crying."

She said she was initially in the large room filled with incubators, where it was difficult to hold her baby. Now, she has two rocking chairs, a couch and pillows where she can comfortably be a mom.

"I get to hold my baby even though she's attached to some of the monitors. You still get to hold your baby, and in the other room it was a little harder," she said.

Benefits for the Baby, and the Family Too

So far, research on this type of treatment is limited and not all physicians are convinced of the rooms' benefits.

Still, Meredith said the experience can help families bond with their new child, so that they feel more comfortable when they bring the baby home.

"It says to the family, 'We welcome you to be part of your child's care, and you are the parent. Be here, be part of what's going on,'" Meredith said. "The older environments, which were much more crowded and loud … were not terribly family friendly. And families didn't feel as comfortable about spending time there."

So far, only a fraction of the nation's neonatal facilities have these rooms, but many more are under construction.

At Phoenix Children's, more than a hundred "womb rooms" are nearly complete, giving the tiniest patients room to grow with the help of medicine and mom.

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